The history of the Whiskey Rebellion is shrouded in myth. Many scholars consider it a victory for the young U.S. government. But was it really a win for the anti-tax patriots?
What caused the Whiskey Rebellion?
The Whiskey Rebellion was the second major internal uprising in U.S. history (preceded only by Shays’ Rebellion). It was a response to an excise tax created by Alexander Hamilton, who served as Secretary of the Treasury under George Washington.
The U.S. government racked up $79 million in debt during the Articles of Confederation period. The Federal government owed $54 million of that amount. The individual states owed $25 million. Alexander Hamilton saw this as an opportunity to centralize government. He proposed to consolidate the debt. In order to pay it back, he would create a tax on domestic spirits. This was seen as a relatively safe luxury tax. In addition, he had support from those who viewed alcohol as a sinful indulgence. Thus, the Whiskey Act was passed into law in 1791.
What happened during the Whiskey Rebellion?
The Whiskey Tax was extremely unpopular, especially on the frontier (back then, the frontier consisted of Kentucky as well as parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia). Many people in these areas just refused to pay the tax. But in western Pennsylvania, protestors fought back.
In July 1794, more than 500 people attacked the tax inspector’s home. George Washington sent a massive militia, 13,000 people strong, to quell the rebellion. By the time the militia arrived, the rebellion had dispersed. Some 20 people were arrested, but no one was ever convicted of a crime.
Guerrilla Explorer’s Analysis
By acting decisively to quell the threat, Washington had proven that the federal government would stand behind the law. Many continued to fear that the government would destroy their dearly purchased freedoms. But as President Washington noted in his farewell address, a strong government, not a weak one, was the “main pillar…of your tranquility at home; your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very Liberty which you so highly prize.”
However, the true story of the Whiskey Rebellion lies elsewhere, namely in the frontier. The U.S. government was never able to collect the Whiskey Tax on the frontier. In fact, it hardly tried. In fact, the Whiskey Rebellion, by and large, was mostly a non-violent tax protest. People just refused to pay it. Eventually, Hamilton and his fellow Federalists lost power and all excise taxes were repealed.
Here’s more on the Whiskey Rebellion from Murray Rothbard at LewRockwell.com:
The Whiskey Rebellion has long been known to historians, but recent studies have shown that its true nature and importance have been distorted by friend and foe alike. The Official View of the Whiskey Rebellion is that four counties of western Pennsylvania refused to pay an excise tax on whiskey that had been levied by proposal of the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton in the Spring of 1791, as part of his excise tax proposal for federal assumption of the public debts of the several states.
Western Pennsylvanians failed to pay the tax, this view says, until protests, demonstrations, and some roughing up of tax collectors in western Pennsylvania caused President Washington to call up a 13,000-man army in the summer and fall of 1794 to suppress the insurrection. A localized but dramatic challenge to federal tax-levying authority had been met and defeated. The forces of federal law and order were safe.
This Official View turns out to be dead wrong…
(See the rest at LewRockwell.com)